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What Does “Breaking the Rules” Mean?

How many times have you seen a list of design rules that ends with, “You’ve got to learn the rules before you can break them”? This advice is rarely well-explained, and it’s a bit confusing, because ignoring design rules haphazardly results in something atrocious like this:

An example of poor design

Which rules should be broken, and why does design have rules if they’re supposed to be broken? Here are three general categories of design rules (though there are more, of course) and when you can break them.

First, design rules about legibility, clarity, and balance should rarely be broken. One example is kerning, or adjusting the space between letters to balance their visual weight and improve legibility. These rules can be broken if illegibility or awkwardness is your goal. But usually, your design will just look unprofessional.

Other design principles are, in a sense, ‘broken rules’ that are used to create dynamism or focus. Asymmetry is symmetry so ‘broken’ and off-center that it’s aesthetically pleasing. Using a discordant color for a single word can create emphasis and visual interest.

A final rule of design is its accountability to cultural expectations and trends. Research will indicate which colors, styles, and typefaces express the intended message to the right audience. For example, if you’re designing a logo for a sandwich shop, bright pink might not entice American visitors. Breaking design expectations for a shock factor, such as using Zapf Dingbats for a whole article, only makes sense if you want to convey humor or annoyance. Otherwise, you risk engendering negative, unwanted reactions from viewers.

Design is communication. Breaking design rules only works if the viewer sees that the rules have been broken for the purpose of better communication. That’s why you have to learn the rules first.